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Here's why the US extended its land border closure — even as it reopens to air travel

Oct. 05, 2021
6 min read
Canadian and American flags fly near the base of the Ambassador Bridge connecting Canada to the U.S. in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, on Wednesday, May 26, 2021. Nearly half of respondents in an Angus Reid Institute poll released Wednesday said the world's longest undefended frontier should remain closed until at least September and more than three quarters said they would support a vaccine passport. Photographer: Cole Burston/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Here's why the US extended its land border closure — even as it reopens to air travel
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Soon, you’ll be able to fly into the United States from around the world for travel purposes. But one thing that’s still significantly harder to do: cross into the U.S. by land.

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The U.S. has had restrictions on land and ferry crossings into the country since March 2020, or the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The ban has been renewed on a near-monthly basis and was recently extended at least another month until mid-October — even as the U.S. announced a plan to reopen to vaccinated international tourists, who will be allowed to enter by air for leisure purposes for the first time since the onset of the pandemic.

So, why is the land border still closed? It’s complicated. But as air travel resumes, some think the land border ban has outlived its usefulness.

Why is the land border still closed?

Point Roberts, Washington Border Crossing Building from Canada (Photo by Darren Murph / The Points Guy)

Nonessential travel by land into the U.S. is more or less prohibited -- even though U.S. travelers are permitted to visit Mexico and Canada, and U.S. citizens who are returning from travel to either country can still enter the U.S. freely.

In August, I found out how easy it was to drive back to the U.S. when I visited Niagara Falls, Canada. There was no wait time at the Buffalo point of entry: I simply showed my passport, answered questions about the nature of my trip and zipped right through. In contrast, I waited in line to get through Canadian immigration for well over an hour.

So, why is the land border still closed — especially when Canada and Mexico are open to Americans and the U.S. is preparing to welcome foreigners by air?

Blame the delta variant. Or at least that’s what the federal government is saying.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has said the restrictions remain in place given the spread of the delta variant. DHS made that argument yet again in a tweet on Sept. 21. The agency did note that the guidance could be amended or rescinded before Oct. 21.

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But let’s dig a little into DHS’s claims about restricting land travel due to concerns about the highly transmissible delta variant. We know now that air travel is not as big of a coronavirus superspreader as implied early in the pandemic. But it’s still possible, which pokes a hole into the logic to restrict some modes of travel and not others due to the variant.

And while the delta variant is indeed spreading in the U.S. -- over 4.1 million cases and 51,000 deaths have been reported in the last month alone -- cases have sharply dropped on one side of the border, in Mexico. Mexico reported 29,000 positive cases in mid-August and has recently halved that figure. Additionally, just 50% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, compared to 71% of Canadians (only 35% of Mexicans are fully vaccinated).

And yet, the land border remains shut for travel even as one side of the border has vaccinated the majority of its citizens, and another side has seen a significant decrease in positive cases.

There is another reason why the land border has remained closed, members of the travel industry have said.

There’s simply a lack of proper staffing at U.S. land borders, said U.S. Travel Association CEO, Roger Dow. Agents from the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and responsible for processing a person’s entry into the U.S., and in remarks at the annual IPW travel conference in Las Vegas last month, Dow theorized that the ban remained in place due to staffing issues at the northern and southern U.S. borders.

In a follow-up request for clarification on Dow's remarks, a spokesperson told TPG that the association is pressing the Biden administration to "quickly find a solution" and ensure "appropriate resources" are available to reopen the land borders.

"U.S. Travel is engaged with the White House and administration, urging them to lift restrictions on land borders as has been announced for air," a spokesperson told TPG via email. "While the reopening of air travel is a big step forward, our land borders with Canada and Mexico remain closed through at least October 2021, costing the U.S. economy nearly $700 million per month."

More people do arrive in the U.S. by land than air, with U.S. officials processing 682,000 people coming by land on a typical day, according to 2019 Customs and Border Protection data. Unlike air travel, people arriving at the U.S. border can do so by foot, bike or vehicle. (There is little data on COVID-19 transmissibility from land vehicles such as cars and buses.)

Staffing has long been an issue at CBP. Two members of Congress reached out to the White House in the spring, saying that Northern Border Patrol Agents “continue to remain understaffed and overworked.”

The White House didn’t allude to staffing issues in its announcement that it would extend the ban yet again. Most recently, COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients simply said the ban would continue at least for another month.

“We do not have any updates to the land border policies at this point. Title 19 is being extended for another month, as it is done on a monthly basis, through Oct. 21, and as I said, no further updates on that policy at this point,” Zients said.

But that update isn’t good enough for many members of the travel industry — nor is it good enough for jurisdictions and residents near the borders of Canada and Mexico. People on both sides of the border have insisted their economies are taking a hit due to the ban.

Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee sent a letter to President Biden last week calling for the restriction to be rescinded, noting that 85% of one border community’s economy depended on commercial activity by Canada.

“The harms and economic depredations experienced by these communities grow more dire with each month – and each monthly extension of these blanket restrictions,” Inslee wrote.

As the U.S. prepares to reopen to air travelers worldwide, it will also have to answer tough questions about why those closest to our borders -- and are among the U.S.’s closest allies -- are still barred from entering by land.

Featured image by Bloomberg via Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

10XEarn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
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    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

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Why We Chose It

The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

Pros

  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Up to $300 in annual travel statement credits toward bookings make through Capital One Travel.
  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

Cons

  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,300+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and the Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023